GARY CHAPMAN DOES NOT HAVE A PICTURE of pop-gospel superstar Amy Grant, his wife of fifteen years, anywhere in his office, though he does have one of Don Knotts as Barney Fife, the deputy sheriff on The Andy Griffith Show, along with black and white portraits of his three children. In fact, if you look around the cozy room where 39-year-old Chapman rehearses his monologue for Prime Time Country, the talk show he hosts four nights a week on The Nashville Network (TNN), the only hint of his marriage to Grant is a red flag he stole from the Florida golf course where Caddyshack was filmed. Encased in glass like a precious relic, it bears an inscription from the movie’s star: “Gary, on your deathbed, you will receive . . . Amy . . . which is nice. Bill Murray.” But even it is tucked in a corner, so it’s not something you’d notice.
That’s fitting, for after being known for most of his adult life as Amy Grant’s husband, Gary Chapman is finally forging an identity of his own. This year Chapman, who grew up in the North Central Texas town of De Leon, won a Grammy nomination for best pop-contemporary gospel album, his second nod in four years. Last year he was named male vocalist of the year by the Gospel Music Association (GMA), began a syndicated Christian countdown radio show that airs in more than two hundred markets across the country, and—most important—landed his gig on Prime Time Country, turning a show that had fizzled under previous hosts into a modest success, attracting A-list guests like Reba McEntire and Clint Black and increasing the viewership 25 percent, from 552,000 to 690,000 households a night. “When I make phone calls now, I get return phone calls, and the people are showing up,” says the show’s producer, RAC Clark. “We have a personality.” Indeed, at humor-challenged TNN—whose staple programming is bass fishing, line dancing, and reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard —Chapman is a maverick: He derides his looks, dangles from a hard hat caked with denture adhesive, and eats dog food (Country Gold, George Jones’s brand).
Such David Letterman—esque behavior explains why CBS is giving Chapman his network television debut on August 6, as a cohost of the prime-time special CountryFest ’97, and it also solves an abiding mystery: how a guy like him ever landed a babe like Amy Grant. “I’m not cute, but I’m funny,” he explains simply, reclining on Prime Time Country ’s Opryland set on a February morning. But actually, with his aw-shucks resemblance to Harry Connick, Jr., he is cute—cuter, certainly, than when he married Grant in 1982, when his hair was a puffy cap of curls and his nose was still a jutting beak. And, anyway, wit is only part of his allure. “He’s a very diverse individual,” says Chapman’s friend Tony Brown, the president of MCA Records Nashville. Indeed, as Grant (who declined to be interviewed for this story) once told a reporter: “You just get the feeling that you think you’re walking through the threshold of his personality. You see one hundred more doors in front of you. . . . It’s almost like a magnet that pulls so much deeper than the surface.”
The complexity of Chapman’s musical résumé bears out that point. His CDs offer full-blown R&B selections, schmaltzy love duets, an a cappella church hymn, even a John Hiatt cover. And though he is primarily a gospel singer, he has toured with pop star and erstwhile Grateful Dead keyboardist Bruce Hornsby and cut a straight pop album, Everyday Man. And in addition to being a singer, he’s a guitarist, an award-winning producer, and a songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by Vanessa Williams (“Goodbye”), T. G. Sheppard (the 1981 number one country hit “Finally”) and Grant, including her first number one on the gospel charts, “Father’s Eyes.”
Not necessarily what you’d expect for a country TV host, but considering the hodgepodge that country music is today, Chapman’s layers suit him for the job. “He’s very intelligent, so he can talk to people on different levels,” says Brian Hughes, TNN’s vice president of programming. “He can be a little left of center and sarcastic, and then there’s the kind of lovable kid in him that endears him to some of the moms and grandmas out there.” That’s a secret of Chapman’s success: He appeals to the young people who’ve been entranced by country music since its explosion in the early nineties—kids who buy anything from honky-tonk traditionalists in jeans to young pretties in Versace and retro hipsters in Colonel Sanders ties—without alienating the network’s core audience, a group more enamored of buttoned-up Barbara Mandrell than bare-bellied Shania Twain or Mindy McCready.
Chapman’s natural, self-deprecating personality comes through when he plays the foil to his beefcake guests—when he informs a singer known as the Tennessee Studmuffin that he himself is the Tennessee bran muffin or when he opens “Country Hunks Week” by marveling that he is being allowed to host it. He got LeAnn Rimes, a notoriously stiff interview, to relax with a quiz-show—type Q&A complete with a bell, and he let Deana Carter shave his leg. But a certain tension belies the gaiety in as much as Chapman’s heroes are country’s old guard, who’ve been kicked off the radio by the same crop of studs and cuties he books as guests. To compensate, he goes out of his way to put older personalities in a funny, relevant light. During “Country Hunks Week,” for example, he had Little Jimmy Dickens, a 76-year-old Nashville legend, dispense advice on women. And Prime Time Country is one of the few places where George Jones can debut new material. “I know I’m gonna get in trouble for saying it,” Chapman asked Jones during one visit, “but doesn’t it make you mad that your records don’t get played?”
And yet, for all the buzz he’s generating, Chapman’s sensibility has raised a few